Friday, September 18, 2009

Experimenting with Worldviews

As part of my interest in the way a person’s psychology affects their intellectual, philosophical, principled, moral beliefs, I’ve also been interested in worldviews or belief-systems or overall perspectives. Or, in Wilfred Sellars definition (of philosophy): “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” In a recent book by Eugene Webb, “Worldview and Mind,” he quotes Marcus Borg’s definition of worldview: “a culture or religion’s taken-for-granted understanding of reality – a root image of what is real and thus of how to live” (pp 19-20 in Borg’s “The God We Never Knew).

Mostly, philosophical writing uses abstract concepts, but I think it often neglects offering concrete examples that illustrate the concepts. And I think that often this aversion or neglect of offering concrete examples is due to a fear that when one starts going into detail about what one is talking about the problems and anomalies will show themselves. It safer and more comfortable to speak abstractly.

Regarding worldviews, I wondered if I could describe one. So I chose the Christian worldview. And, surprisingly, it was hard. To include all major Christian sects I know of I had to make the most general, bland statements: Is the Bible believed by Christians to be written by God or just the sacred book, or, depending on the definition of sacred, the main book? Is sin central, or is love central? Is Jesus God incarnate or just a prophet? Did he actually rise from the dead or are we to understand the story metaphorically? Is that rising what’s centrally important or not?

Perhaps as the subject is narrowed – Catholics instead of Christians – one can be more specific.

But, instead of taking a social group’s worldview I thought that it would be easier and more inkeeping with this blog’s project to describe an individual’s worldview. Since my own is so ready-to-hand I will describe mine. I do this not to convince anyone of it, but as a researcher into one person’s worldview.

(Although one of the characteristics of one's worldviews is, I think, that we think that everything we believe is right, or, the best we can do right now; that no one knowingly holds a wrong view. Although again, I know a guy who doesn't believe the dinosaurs really existed on earth, yet he also knows that science has demonstrated it. Rational people have unusual and contradictory beliefs, some of which beliefs haven't met each other and some which, more interestingly, have and yet are still simultaneously held. In psychology this is called "cognitive dissonance."

What would a worldview look like? How extensive is it? What’s included and what’s not? How coherent is it? Does a worldview contain specific political beliefs or does a worldview describe one’s fundamental orienting categories a la Kant. And yet, even with those basic, orienting, physical, Kantian categories such as space, time and causality, there is philosophical debate about their nature. And there’s also people who have unorthodox – for the Western scientific rationalist – views of them: Jungian synchronicity, action at a distance, astrological effects, shamanistic and psychedelic space and time alterations, etc.

Since it’s a blog, I thought I’d just start describing some aspects of my worldview and reflect upon, and organize it, later. (As opposed to my usual tendency to make it all nice and polished and presentable before anyone sees it.)


Howard Johnson said...

Hi Jeff;
Slightly random (not totally thought out) observations on your last 2 posts:
1. Might emotions be a stronger force behind world views than is reason, especially in the context of cognitive dissonance
2. I think of the social / individual distinction as mutually constitutive and understanding each is depend on the other
3. The prevalence of cognitive dissonance is not helped by the general degradation of Rhetoric as a subject of general education.
4. My impression of your last post was supportive (for me) of the concept of the hero as the ultimate context of a worldview (Thinking more of Joseph Campbell than of Nietzsche (though I'm not sure how far part they are in actuality)
Thanks for the thinking prompts!

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Hi Howard,


1. Yes! That's the idea behind the idea of an arational basis for worldviews and my paper: "Arguments Beyond Reason." Within a worldview reason plays its role, but when we ask why that worldview or why that assumption, principle, axiom, I think we have to look elsewhere than reason for understandings.

2. Yes, social/individual are mutually constitutive in terms of their meaning, but practically I think we understand the difference between describing a Catholic worldview and an individual Catholic's worldview. My particular worldview will have lots of social categories - all the understandings I get from the society I've been cultivated by - but it will also be idiosyncratic and distinguishable from the next guy's.

3. Do you mean an education in rhetoric would help people not contradict themselves? So too an education in logic. But maybe you mean something different.

4. I would say worldviews as a totality don't have an ultimate context. The idea or narrative of the hero - focus on the individual facing obstacles; on a journey; growing over time; a tragic figure, etc. - could be an ingredient in or the basis of a person's worldview, but others may not think in those terms much.

Perhaps one might say that Nelson Goodman, in his book "Ways of Worldmaking" describes the structure or philosophy of worldviews in general. That might be called their "ultimate context."

Good to hear your comments, and any follow-ups.


Howard Johnson said...

In regards to education and rhetoric - Yes, I'm from ed psych and I'm not using philosophical terms in quite the same ways as philosophers. So in a technical sense I probably do mean more than just rhetoric. I think I speak from 2 perspectives:
1. Ed psych has traveled a route from the 50's and 60s (according to a grad school mentor) when most social science journal articles had no discussion or conclusions sections (No narrative, let the data speak for itself) to the 90s when I studied narrative inquiry (with stories as the data). Through all of this, science has changed, but in fragmented ways with lots of people talking past each other rather than to each other. The art, not just of persuasion, but of communication and explanation seems to be sorely lacking.
2. I also recently was thinking on Wittgenstein, inspired partially by your 9-3 post, and reading up on Hertz's influence on his thinking. The following is from a post I made:
According to Janik (2002), Wittgenstein took many fundamental ideas from Heinrich Hertz who believed that “rhetorical adequacy is as important as architecture” (see p. 8 ) when talking about scientific models. Hertz gave three criteria for scientific models:
*They must be logically permissible, (i.e., internally consistent, empirically correct)
*They must be communicatively appropriate or effective.
*They must have usefulness in a given situation.
I think we frequently fail on the last two, especially on the second
The full post was made 9-8 at titled: Design, Hermeneutics, Wittgenstein and Our Ethical Commitment to the World
Also - Thanks for the Nelson reference. I've requested a copy and hope to get to it soon.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...


1. I'm not so sure about the generalization of people talking past one another. Sure, it happens, but it also happens that people respond to each other's points. Maybe the larger problem is degree of specialization with each person become more and more knowledgeable about a more and more limited domain.

Yes, that's an interesting change you note from neutral fact reporting to placing facts in narrative contexts. Recognizing the importance, even inextricability of narrative is a broad trend. It relates to worlviews in that they can has a narrative structure, like the hero's journey.

2. Yes, it's tough to know how best to convey something so that the person you're trying to convince accepts it. That task is connected to the third Hertzian criteria of usefulness to the situation. That third criteria which is a pragmatic criteria is important to my worldview which I just posted a piece of on this blog.